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Cyber Labels

Arts & Culture | March 2, 2015

In 1952, John Cage released 4’33”, a musical composition of complete silence performed first by pianist David Tutor, who played not a single note of music for the four and a half minutes of the piece. In 2014, funk band Vulfpeck released Sleepify, an album of 10 silent songs, onto music streaming site Spotify.

These musical works, set 60 years apart, use the same shock-factor concept but for very different motives. Cage’s piece turns the audience into the joke, showing that people pay for good music because someone told them to pay for that good music. The ambient stirring, coughing, and whispering coming from the audience become the music of Cage’s composition. For Vulfpeck, it was less the commentary and more the extra royalties they would receive from Spotify.

In a promo video for Vulfpeck’s Sleepify, bandleader Jack Stratton explained that Spotify gives the band half a cent per listen in royalties. He urged his fans to stream the album on repeat while they sleep, generating an estimated four dollars each night’s sleep in royalties. He goes on to say he would be using all the funds raised to go on a tour, free of charge, in cities that generated the most revenue.

“Never in the history of music has it been so easy to support a band’s tour,” Stratton says in the video. Jokes on capitalist corporations aside, Vulfpeck’s album serves as an important symbol of the power struggle that comes with new forms of digital music. Streaming platforms like Spotify—which has been criticized even by big names like Taylor Swift and Thom Yorke on its unfair artist royalties—put artists and their producers in the position of distributing their music to a wider audience at the expense of profit.

However, like Vulfpeck, artists are finding ways to game the system. In 2012, Amanda Palmer of the self-described “punk Cabaret” band Dresden Dolls opened up a Kickstarter asking fans to give her money for her next record, tour, and accompanying art book. She asked for $100,000 and got $1,200,000.

Later, during her tour, she called for local artists to come play for free and said that, in exchange, “We will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make.” Many took to the Internet to ask where her funds, 12 times as many as she had asked for, had gone to if she could not even compensate and support local musicians.

This form of direct funding, which Palmer opted for in 2010 when she dropped her record label contract, creates issues in the accountability and legal details. By asking fans for financial investment in their art rather than a relying on a record label to make a profit, artists like Palmer become responsible for being able to use those funds wisely so that the audience can reap the returns.

On Palmer’s website, she has a pay-what-you-can model for users to buy all the music she was able to put up on the site. The songs are also registered under creative commons.

Radiohead did something similar a few years earlier when they released their album In Rainbows on a pay-what-you-want basis on their website, record company-free. Radiohead’s guitarist Ed O’Brien advocates for artists’ representation and compensation rights. The band made more profit on its pre-release alone of In Rainbows than it did on their last album in total. Frontman Thom Yorke’s advice to aspiring artists is to release music without the help of a major record label, reports Rolling Stone. Yet, two months after their online release of In Rainbows, Radiohead signed with TBD Records to sell the album in stores, showing that perhaps the system is not ready to take record labels out just yet.

“You can’t replace record labels. You can’t replace having a marketing team that has a direct interest in the success of your music. You can’t replace having a 50k budget to make a record,” said lead guitarist Greg Warns of Tufts-born band Shark Shaddle.

This kind of musical communism is trying to dismantle the corporate structure yet it also might be ruining the quality. Most credit this new wave of music sharing to the infamous Napster. The P2P file-sharing website opened in 1999 and had to close in 2001, with millions of dollars owned due to copyright infringements.

“The service was a major boon for new artists, most of whom had no access to the sort of international promotion in which the gatekeeping major labels specialized; now they could build a career on the enthusiasm of music fans worldwide, freed from the business calculations of the music industry,” says former MTV News Anchor to the Daily Beast.

Now there are plenty of sites similar to Napster. It is easy for any band to put their music up on Bandcamp, SoundCloud, Last.fm, or any other of the music platforms available.

In its business model, Bandcamp (a leading site on music streaming and purchasing) aims to put the power back into the hands of the musicians, allowing them to name their price (or let users name their price) as well as to interact with fans. But there is so much music on Bandcamp, recorded via iPhone and professionally alike, that it’s hard for listeners to sift through. That’s where music blogs come in, explains co-founder of local music blog Sound of Boston Knar Bedian (A ’14). Music blogs look through the countless albums, EPs, and homemade music videos on the Internet to provide listeners a more selective music collection.

This virtual system works to provide general exposure to bands, rather than more funds or even more fans. “I would say sites like Bandcamp are more likely to provide artists the power to increase the breadth of their fan base, rather than actually grow the size of their fan base,” said Bedian.

We are arriving at a new era in which views and listens—although less financially profitable than hard purchases—are the new quantifiers of success. Vicente Epsi, half of the Boston-found duo ANIMA!, says Internet streaming and downloading have created a kind of “currency of attention”. The band has their first EP on streaming site SoundCloud.

In the end, these new forms, whether in the innovative styles of Vulfpeck and Radiohead or in the self-releasing ways of bands still trying to “make it,” are all thanks to the Internet. Whether they help musicians get more money, more fans, or even just more geographic range, cyberspace has helped to empower the musician.

Art by Tess Denison.